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How summer camp became a nightmare for working parents

Registering for summer camp is an increasingly complicated and expensive puzzle for working parents. Education expert Elliot Haspel argues that summer camp needs to be part of the national child care conversation.

How summer camp became a nightmare for working parents
[Photo: Artem Kniaz/Unsplash]

It’s March, which means summer camp madness is upon us. As The New York Times national education correspondent Dana Goldstein tweeted recently, “when I was a kid you were lucky to go to one summer camp the whole summer. when did this change and in current bourgeois parenting you are supposed to switch camp every 2 weeks and signing up is a part time job.”

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The answer to Goldstein’s question is that a changing economic landscape collided with the now-dominant model of intensive parenting. The implications are significant: Summer care, along with before- and after-school care, are huge pain points for parents, and the child care conversation should be broadened to include school-aged children.

The history here is fascinating. As one article notes, “It wasn’t always this way. Summer camps actually began with the goal of giving low-income, urban children access to nature and fresh air while keeping them out of trouble when they were not in school. But over the years, they have become yet another means by which American society reinforces the cultural boundaries between children of the well-off and everyone else.”

Full-time working parents face a Hunger Games landscape of limited, expensive slots.”

The myriad low-cost, non-profit summer camps began to decline in the 1980s. Increases in fixed costs like personnel and insurance ran into big capital expenses from maintaining aging facilities. Then, specialized camps showed up on the scene, catering to affluent parents eager to give their children a leg up on college applications via activities like horseback riding or coding. This created more expectations, more competition, and also siphoned off families able to pay full fees. While there are still some great municipal options (my daughter attended a half-day arts camp in Richmond last summer that was $60 for two weeks, lunch included), many of them are half-day or have a short duration. In general, full-time working parents face a Hunger Games landscape of limited, expensive slots.

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High cost, low availability

The problem, of course, is that the same period affordable camp options were declining was a period of major increases in working motherhood. By the late ’90s, and continuing today, two-thirds of children have all available parents in the workforce (and as Baby Boomers age, relying on grandparents isn’t always an option). The results around summer care have been sadly predictable, and hit lower-income families hardest.

As a 2019 report from the Center for American Progress found: “Parents face barriers to securing care for their children, with 3 in 4 respondents reporting at least some difficulty finding child care during the summer; Cost is a common barrier to securing child care, with more than half of respondents reporting that paying for child care is a significant challenge; In 57% of families surveyed, a lack of child care means that at least one parent plans to make a job change that will result in reduced income.”

In 57% of families surveyed, a lack of child care means that at least one parent plans to make a job change that will result in reduced income.”

Societal responsibility masquerading as a private market good

The challenges facing families around school-aged care and early child care share the same DNA: What should be a shared societal responsibility is masquerading as a private market good. After-school and summer program staff, like child care educators, are paid very low wages, and these programs are also suffering through a major staffing shortage; three-quarters in a recent survey said they were struggling. While I don’t want to go too far in claiming that school-aged care and early care are identical–they’re not, as early care is distinguished by the sheer number of hours of care per year, much lower child:adult ratios, and unique professional training needs–they are certainly cousins if not siblings.

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That relationship has been acknowledged to varying degrees in policy proposals. The original Child Care for Working Families Act, first introduced in 2017, actually incorporated into its benefits all children under age 13 living in families below 150% of state median income. By the time the House passed its version of the Build Back Better Act, the income threshold was raised, but benefits only available for children under age six. Instead, 90% of the Child Care & Development Block Grant (CCDBG, the current subsidy system) would shift to provide school-age benefits for those under 85% of state median income (SMI)–an important handful of billions of dollars, but not the same as extending a new child care entitlement up through elementary school.

It’s time that the early care and school-aged care movements get a lot cozier. That could mean making sure more parents can access the school-aged CCDBG funds, perhaps expanding eligibility for that population up to 100% or 150% of SMI. It could look like introducing a permanent school-aged booster to the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit as part of any child care deal. It could even look like reconsidering whether the cutoff for new child care benefits–and for the sense that parents and children deserve a right to quality care–should be at age 5 or 13. I would argue that since the need for care doesn’t end at Kindergarten, our support for families outside the school day and year shouldn’t either.

Elliot Haspel is a childcare policy expert and author of the book Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.

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This article was originally published in Elliot Haspel’s Newsletter The Parents Aren’t Alright and is reprinted here with permission. Click here to subscribe.

If you liked this story, Read more of Fast Company‘s ongoing education coverage here.

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